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Where the burger is king

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Phnom Penh's first fast-food chains are seeing booming business as a growing middle class seeks new tastes, with more outlets set to open

Photo by: VANDY RATTANA

Deep-fried chicken is one of the favourites being served up in Phnom Penh’s new and bustling fast food joints.

AN emerging middle class and hordes of urban youth hungry for a taste of Western culture have fast food restaurants doing a brisk trade in Cambodia.

As they lobby for additional franchises in the Kingdom, the government has framed the industry's growth as a barometer of a stronger business environment and growing purchasing power.

At the opening of Cambodia's first Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) franchise in March, Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh was on hand to sample the goods and show the government's official support for the debut of the most internationally recognised brand yet to open in Cambodia.

"In general we are encouraging foreign investment, and fast-food chains are part of that," Phan Sorasak, secretary of state at the Ministry of Commerce, told the Post.

"Investment is one thing, but they also introduce international standards in terms of business models and standards of hygiene," he said. "Fast food is in fashion in the region. There is a growing middle class, and people are interested in trying new food and sometimes have less time to eat."

Adapting to global office customs, greater numbers of professionals in Cambodia are taking short lunches at restaurants instead of returning home for an extended break.

"I stopped having lunch at home because it's no longer possible to take all that time off in the middle of the day," said Pheav Phally, a 25-year-old IT worker, as he finished a burger with his colleagues at BB World on Kampuchea Krom Boulevard. "Now I always have lunch with people I work with somewhere near the office, where food can come quickly."

The 'modern world'

Before opening its first branch in 2002, when there was only a handful of fast-food restaurants in the city, BB World brought in consultants from Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand for instruction on how to make the then-exotic fast-food style burgers, chicken and pizza, said BB World marketing manager Khiev Channa.

"At that time only a small number of customers were Cambodian because they weren't used to eating this kind of food before," he said.

Even once consumer spending power and political stability in Cambodia had reached a threshold acceptable to investors, the success of burgers, fries and pizza in Cambodia remained uncertain.

Some flavours didn't easily adapt to the Khmer diet. Early BB World branches would sometimes add sugar to hamburgers at the request of Cambodian customers - a practice that Western diners might find unappealing.

But unorthodox culinary adaptations may have helped BB World in its early days, and it now has five stores in Cambodia, with plans to open its sixth next month.

Khiev Channa said most BB World branches serve about 500 customers each day, most of whom are middle- and upper-class Cambodians, unlike the foreign expatriates and tourists who made up the bulk of its customer base a few years ago.

"Cambodian people have moved from their old habits, and in the last few years fast food has really caught on," he said. "Now, even Cambodians from the provinces come to eat a hamburger when they are in Phnom Penh."

The Express Food Group (EFG), founded in 2004 as a subsidiary of the multinational trading and services firm RM Asia Group, runs Cambodia's franchises of the Pizza Company and Swenson's.

Tep Virak, operations manager for EFG, said his firm is looking to introduce new franchises to Cambodia, perhaps even "something like Starbucks".

He said global food brands are driven by young people "looking to the West for food and clothes, and for something modern".

"The growth of the economy, political stability, the growth of the middle class - these have expanded the market for food brands to come here," he said. "When people get more money, they tend to look for something modern."

Deep-fried tastes

The first globally recognised Western fast-food chain to launch in Cambodia, American hallmark KFC, has announced an ambitious proposal to have four chains open by the end of the year.

It currently has two in Phnom Penh - the second opened in August in Sovanna mall.

Noun Rotana, the Sovanna branch's assistant manager, said the growth of urban wealth and changing consumer tastes encouraged the fast-food king to enter the Cambodian market.

"People are still learning about us since we are the newest chain," she said.

She added that sales at her branch have doubled in the two months since it opened and that fast food in general has transformed the restaurant experience for Cambodians.

University students have already given KFC a dedicated following.

"This is where I and my friends like to come to chat and hang out when we have free time," said So Theary, a second-year student at the National University of Management, who had come for fried chicken wings with a group of friends.

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